Too often, films are left to rot – virtually the entire pantheon of silent films and most early Technicolor musicals are either missing in part or full due to negligence for future generations. It’s also common for the original negatives of 70mm epics to be lost to time and carelessness – from The Alamo to The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, it’s truly a crime to let art dissipate like this. However, some films are neglected due to hatred or disappointment, and sadly, Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess is one such a film to have lost its original TODD-AO camera negative, but not all hope is lost.
I had become fascinated with Preminger’s Porgy when I was browsing through the director’s filmography on IMDb — to think that the white director of Anatomy of a Murder did an almost all-black musical. As I dug further, I found that not all went well with the production, the history of which can be read in historian Foster Hirsch’s book, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, or on the film’s Wikipedia page. Altogether, the film was blackballed by the Hollywood intelligentsia and the NAACP, rendering it a flop and almost forgotten. The rights to the film were split threefold between the estates of the Gershwins, DuBose Heyward and Samuel Goldwyn, rendering any re-releases impossible, even on Turner Classic Movies.
Sheer dumb luck led me to a screening of the film at the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Cinemateque last November, and I was ecstatic. The screening was beyond sold out – numerous pop-up seats had to be added to the theater to accommodate demand – and aforementioned biographer Foster Hirsch was at hand, explaining the history behind the film as well as the print used for the screening. It was a 35mm positive from a Finnish film festival, laden with Dutch and Finnish subtitles, and with more than occasional short jumps in the soundtrack — it broke my greasy little heart, and yet I was still blown away.
The film is shot in long, panning takes, exposing the beauty and intricacies of the Catfish Row set, with a very saturated color scheme that brings to mind a Fragonard painting. Further, orchestrations by André Previn of the classic songs are masterful – from “Summertime” to the Finale Ultimo, I hung upon every note. Some may not like the fact that it was filmed on sets, or that the recitative is converted to spoken word, but truly, I feel it keeps the staged quality of the show while bringing it to the level of the general public without pandering for compromise.
Paramount among every facet of the film is the acting and singing. Sydney Poitier (Lillies of the Field) plays Porgy, a role he resents playing to this day, with grace and kindness, but also with the requisite strength we expect from an actor of his caliber, even if his singing is performed by Robert McFerrin (side note: this film has excellent sound-alike casting!). Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones) plays Bess, Porgy’s woman with a past always returning to haunt her, and does it extremely well, especially due to the duress she was under during filming. Oddly enough, the singing Dandridge was dubbed by Adele Addison, due to the role being out of her range. Still, the casting holds well.
Supporting women include Pearl Bailey (The Fox & The Hound) as Maria, a restaurant owner on Catfish Row and friend to most everyone — and she gets some of the best slapstick moments I’ve ever seen — and Diahann Carrol (Claudine) as Clara, who opens the film with “Summertime.” Amazingly, two of the background dancers include author Maya Angelou and Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)!
Supporting men are headlined by Brock Peters (To Kill A Mockingbird), playing decidedly against type as Crown, Bess’ abusive lover, and veteran character actor Clarence Muse (Broadway Bill) has a small part as Peter, the honey-man. The standout player, however, is Sammy Davis Jr. (Robin and the Seven Hoods) as Sportin’ Life, in a role he was thrilled to play, and it shows! His energy was so infectious that by the end of his standout number, It Ain’t Necessarily So, the audience was applauding and cheering! He further has all the smarm and calculated malice of a cobra in There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York. It’s a crime he didn’t get an Oscar for this role, and it’s even sadder that his voice is not heard on the soundtrack LP, due to contract issues.
Sadly, the film was a bomb at the box office, and neither the Gershwins, Heyward or Goldwyn enjoyed the final product. The original negative is worn-out and just about gone, but thanks to Foster Hirsch, the film was given a new lease on life in 2007, when he negotiated a 35mm screening in New York City, with Brock Peters in attendance. Hirsch was also instrumental in getting the film rescued by the Library of Congress, who possess a 70mm positive of the film, and since the film is so hard to screen, the Cleveland screening got by because Dorothy Dandridge was a Clevelander and it was the 50th anniversary of the Cinemateque! How’s that for luck?
Hirsch was on hand during the intermission and after the film to answer any questions. In conversing with him, he mentioned that he was entering talks with Criterion to try and get the respective parties to allow a home video release. Here’s hoping, and I leave you all with a quote from Foster Hirsch, which he said just before the film started:
“I was having lunch with [Stephen] Sondheim the other day, and he told me, ‘When the world ends, nothing I’ve done will mean anything! Nothing in Musical Theatre will mean anything… except for one work, and that is Porgy and Bess!'”